The Blue Jays should buy low on a former Dodgers top prospect

Fine, you can have Ohtani. We'll take Miguel Vargas off your hands.

Miguel Vargas
Miguel Vargas / Michael Owens/GettyImages
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An under-reported part of the fallout of Shohei Ohtani signing with the Dodgers is how it affects their roster construction. Ohtani will be their full-time designated hitter next year and Mookie Betts will reportedly play second base.

According to FanGraphs' Roster Resource, this series of moves leaves former Top 100 prospect Miguel Vargas on the bench. Bill Plunkett of The Orange County Register named Vargas as a potential trade target in a recent article, so what if the Blue Jays were able to acquire his services?

"The Dodgers’ top position player prospects – Miguel Vargas and Michael Busch – are also increasingly likely to move."

Bill Plunkett

Vargas, 24, could not get anything going offensively last year; slashing just .195/.305/.367 in 304 plate appearances in the big leagues. He played the vast majority of his games at second base where he greatly struggled defensively but also saw time in left field and first base. Needless to say, it was a tough year for the rookie.

Why would the Jays target a player like this? The most obvious reason is that he entered 2023 as Baseball America's (subscription required) No. 29 ranked prospect in all of baseball. The talent is there and he wouldn't be the first top prospect to struggle before figuring it out. Vargas has long had an incredible combination of swing decisions and contact skills and he showed that at the major league level this year. It was his quality of contact that let him down. The odds were stacked up against him before the season started as he suffered a fractured pinky that prevented him from swinging a bat well into spring training. This was followed by his right thumb getting hit by a pitch a week into the season. Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes highlighted Vargas' finger injuries as a potential reason for his struggles in an interview with The Orange County Register.

"His swing was in such a good place coming into spring,” Gomes said. “Watching him hit with JD, it was, ‘Oh, God, this guy is dialed in.’ Then having the multiple finger issues – the cascading effects of those things I don’t think we ever could account for them."

Brandon Gomes

The effect that hand and finger injuries have on hitters can not be discounted. The wrist, hand, and fingers are put under enormous stress every time a hitter does a max effort swing and you typically see hitters struggle to hit the ball as hard as usual until they've had the necessary rest for their injury to fully heal.

"One of the biggest pitfalls after a thumb, finger, wrist or hand injury to a power hitter -- besides the obvious consequences of the injury itself -- is the lack of power at the plate when the player does return. It has become expected that it will take a hitter time to ramp up to his previous level of play after injuring a body part responsible for controlling grip and bat swing. The loss of range of motion and strength that follows the immobilization normally associated with one of these injuries takes extended period to overcome. After weeks of rehab, a player may recover enough mobility and strength to execute baseball activities, but may still be lacking the ideal amount needed for his particular mechanics. "

Stephania Bell for ESPN

He played through finger injuries throughout 2023 and his exit velocities were well below average at the Triple-A and MLB level. He had an average exit velocity comparable to Kevin Kiermaier in MLB. Vargas was never expected to be a slap hitter. The expectation was that he'd make strong contact to all fields.

"He's a borderline plus-plus hitter who makes so much quality contact he should reach 20-plus home runs as he gets stronger. "

Baseball America in Spring 2023

We can directly compare Vargas's exit velocities at Triple-A in 2022 and 2023 as he spent significant time there in both seasons.

2022

2023

Age for the Season

22

23

Average Exit Velocity

88.9 MPH

87.7 MPH

Max Exit Velocity

112.7 MPH

109.4 MPH

It might not seem like much but the difference between a 88.9 MPH and 87.7 MPH average exit velocity was the difference between Nick Castellanos and Jason Heyward at the MLB level last year. It's rare to see a prospect continue to physically mature and lose power like that. It would not be a leap to say that Vargas should see his exit velocities rebound to more passable numbers with a full off-season of recovery from his finger injuries.

Vargas struggled most against fastballs and high velocity in general. A hitter with as good of bat to ball skills as him struggling with swing and miss on fastballs is an unusual case and perhaps evident of how his finger issues were affecting his bat speed. Bat speed is a large factor in power production but also catching up to fastballs which was a real weakness for him. It's another fallout from his injury to consider especially when he didn't have this reputation as a prospect.

"He has shown the ability to handle high-velocity fastballs and isn't fazed by quality breaking balls. "

MLB Pipeline

Vargas has elite swing decisions and makes an above average amount of contact. Minimum 300 plate appearances, he was 1 of 4 players to swing over 70% of the time in the zone (Z-Swing%) and chase less than 25% of the time out of the zone (O-Swing%).

Player

Z-Swing%

O-Swing%

Mike Trout (LAA)

72.5%

23.0%

Matt Thaiss (LAA)

76.0%

23.7%

JJ Bleday (OAK)

70.9%

24.0%

Miguel Vargas (LAD)

70.6%

24.3%

He's the rare and enviable combination of patient-aggressive and is the first rookie to meet these thresholds since Al Avila in 2010. This is as good as it gets in a young player.

Vargas has also long been touted for his elite control of the barrel. If he can get to just decent raw power numbers he'll be a 15-20 home run threat. When comparing his batted ball data in the majors to AAA, Vargas was hitting more flyballs in the big leagues at the expense of line drives. Given that he's an all-fields hitter with below average raw power, the majority of these flyballs are low quality contact. The Blue Jays could help him get back to the flat swing path that made him effective and this is the kind of profile hitting coach Guillermo Martinez has had success with in the past. With the power returning and the right adjustments, Vargas could find his footing as a 120 wRC+ bat or better. This is the offensive profile the Dodgers were dreaming on when he won a starting role as a rookie.

Defensively, he's more than a question mark and would be quite the project for the Jays to take on. In an ideal world he plays third base which is where he played most as a prospect and where the Jays have a gaping hole. He has hardly played there as a big leaguer but it's safe to say that was out of caution as Vargas has below average arm strength and poor actions and footwork. He played a lot of second base with the Dodgers but wasn't good there either. His long term home might be as an outfielder as he's a good runner and could improve his routes with experience and coaching. The Jays do have a hole in left field and if the bat clicks like it's expected to he could see time at first base or, more likely, designated hitter.

When trading with a team as short on needs as the Dodgers, it can be difficult to find a good trade package. One current glaring need for them is an MLB ready starting pitcher who can eat innings to take the load off their young pitchers and Walker Buehler who is coming off his second Tommy John Surgery. That could be someone like Yusei Kikuchi (one-year/$10M) or Alek Manoah (four years/pre-arbritation) depending on if it's certainty or upside the Dodgers covet. Another need may be shortstop depth as the Dodgers currently have Gavin Lux who is coming off an ACL tear as their starter and Miguel Rojas who doesn't hit at all. The Jays could offer an upper minors prospect like Leo Jimenez or potentially even Santiago Espinal, who still hits lefties and could bounce back with the glove. Finally, the Jays could throw in a depth reliever or a lower minor prospect.

The biggest blow would be losing one of the members of the Blue Jays' rotation. The good news is that it's December and there's free agent names like Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, and Shota Imanaga still available. It's tough to get a feel for what the market for Vargas is like because it's largely dependent on a team's conviction in his prospect profile given how little he produced as a big leaguer. If the Dodgers feel really confident in his abilities they may not get an offer that meets their asking price.

There's no doubting this is a risky move for a team trying to win but the upside of a good-to-great-hitter with 6+ years of control remains tantalizing. There's a real case to be made that now is the time for Ross Atkins to take a big swing as an off-season of incremental moves is unlikely to move the needle in the AL East. Vargas still has the skill-set to be a true impact player it's just a matter of getting healthy and finding consistent playing time, the latter of which the Dodgers can no longer offer.